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The Sense of Order’: An Exchange

In response to:

The Sense of Sense from the June 28, 1979 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of my book The Sense of Order [NYR, June 28] Professor Zerner has paid me a most gratifying compliment: “Gombrich, always quick at discovering the faults in the arguments of others, is almost as adept at finding weaknesses in his own thought.” If he is right I may be forgiven a certain disappointment that those of my thoughts which have so far survived this winnowing process are not probed with similar attention in his review.

It is true that he complains that the book is hard to summarize—I can think of few worth-while books of which this could not be said—but, briefly, I claim that the formal characteristics of most human products, from tools to buildings and from clothing to ornaments, can be seen as manifestations of that sense of order which is deeply rooted in man’s biological heritage. Organic life is governed by hierarchical structures which not only secure the interaction of internal functions (e.g. heartbeat and breathing), but also assist adjustment to the environment. Here the role of the “sense of order” is complementary to the perception of meaning, because the detection of food, of mates, or of danger first requires orientation in space and anticipation in time. Those ordered events in our environment which exhibit rhythmical or other regular features (the waves of the sea or the uniform texture of a cornfield) easily “lock in” with our tentative projections of orders and thereby sink below the threshold of our attention while any change in these regularities leads to an arousal of attention. Hence the artificial environment man has created for himself satisfies this dual demand for easy adjustment and easy arousal.

Having stated this theory in my Introduction on “Order and Purpose in Nature” (not mentioned by Professor Zerner), I attempted to study the various refractions and modifications which these basic tendencies have undergone in human history. Though I have tried to show that elements of this “biological” approach can be found in Hogarth’s Analysis of Beauty, I readily concede that the generality and comparative novelty of the theme demand close and (I am afraid) sequential reading if the insights which Professor Zerner is kind enough to find on every page are to be seen as consequences of the central hypothesis. Certainly, my subtitle “A Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art” is somewhat too narrow to encompass them all, though it indicates the type of evidence I have mainly used. In any case, if I included the Book of Kells or Gothic rose windows in my purview I did not therefore wish to demote their status any more than that of architecture and of music.

It seems a pity that instead of challenging this basic approach Professor Zerner has largely concentrated on such peripheral issues. One of these which appears to concern him most is my real or alleged attitude to nonfigural art—very much a side issue in the book. Denying its connection with decoration he declares ex cathedra that this movement developed from landscape painting—ignoring the alternative theories of Sixten Ringbom on Kandinsky1 and those of Decio Gioseffi (whom I quote) on Mondriaan.2 I never claimed that the suggestive passages by Brewster, Oscar Wilde, Fenollosa and others which I came across in the course of my work on nineteenth-century debates on design explain the whole of this interesting episode in Western art (which appears to be drawing to its close). Professor Zerner bridles at my speaking of an “experiment” in this connection, but so did Constable in relation to landscape painting and Zola to his novels. Not that my preferences in this matter can have much bearing on the truth or falsehood of the theories expounded in this book, but for the record I must reject the blanket assertion that I “dislike modern art.” One of the leading masters of twentieth-century painting. Oskar Kokoschka, honored me by suggesting that I should write the introduction for the catalogue of his great retrospective exhibition in London (1962) and New York (1966).

I realize that Professor Zerner may find in this fact a confirmation of his suspicion of deviance for Kokoschka is something of an outsider in later twentieth-century art and outsiders are as inconvenient to some art historians as dissidents are to politicians. He quotes with apparent disapproval a remark I made on Alois Riegl in my earlier book that his “theory weakens resistance to totalitarian habits of mind.” But the theory to which I referred is an idiosyncratic version of Hegel’s philosophy of history to which the totalitarian movements of Marxism and Fascism notoriously owe so much. Nor am I the first or only reader of Riegl to notice this tendency. My teacher Julius von Schlosser who had known and admired Riegl in his time expressed the same reservation in 1934 writing that Riegl’s ideas “tended towards the interpretation of a sufficiently mythical Volksgeist, indeed of a highly suspect ‘racial’ psyche” (das zur Erfassung eines reichlich mythologischen “Volksgeistes,” ja sogar der höchst bedenklichen “Rassen” Psyche drängte).3

In the last analysis, both of Professor Zerner’s criticisms mentioned so far reflect our different attitudes to the basic issue of collectivism versus individualism in the study of art. He takes artistic collectivism so much for granted that he believes me to be merely muddled in postulating that the period character of styles emerges from the cumulative effect of individual acts of choice. (I would say that in 1912 Kandinsky went one way, Kokoschka another, and that increasingly many artists and critics decided for the latter than for the former alternative; but that they all had freedom of choice.) Hence I have claimed in the book that it is the growing preference of many individuals for “more of this” and “less of that” that ultimately emerges as a trend, a fashion, and finally as a style. I also suggested that “this” or “that” need not be formal features, they can be expressive characteristics such as “lightness,” “severity,” “intensity,” or “coolness.”

I am puzzled, therefore, by Professor Zerner’s lengthy exposition of the physiognomic potentialities of shapes, as if I had ever denied them. I am even more intrigued when he asks: “How long did and does it take for such patterns to assume a physiognomic or expressive value, for the tribesmen to feel that the curvilinear motif on their ceramic utensils expresses the gentleness of their tribe as opposed to the aggressiveness of their neighbor’s angular zigzags? Perhaps not very long.” Alas, he does not tell us if he knows of such a tribe or if he has merely dreamed it up. Such things may happen, but they need not. There are no laws of correlation of this kind. Least of all can I accept the implication that pure design is a late development. James C. Faris in his book on Nuba Personal Art (London, 1972), which I reviewed in these pages (May 4, 1972), insists that this artistic tradition of body painting “is chiefly motivated by aesthetic and decorative factors.” That these complex designs also stand in a cultural context goes without saying, but need I add that, contrary to Professor Zerner’s assertion, I do not and never have identified meaning with naturalistic representation? The chapter of my book entitled “Designs as Signs” to which he nowhere refers is mainly concerned with such systems of signs as alphabets and heraldry and with the gradations we can observe between the distinctive features serving communication, and the settings (such as flourishes and cartouches) which act as means of enhancement. I was also sorry that Professor Zerner who is an authority on the School of Fontainebleau did not comment on my discussion of the grotesque and its passage from magic to playfulness. Instead he took me to task for misquoting the title of a book by Heinrich Wölfflin and also gets it wrong. This is tedious business, for the case can only be explained by reproducing the layout of the original title-page which runs

Die Kunst der Renaissance


und das

Deutsche Formgefühl

In quoting this title I inserted an “in” between Renaissance and Italien, while Professor Zerner omitted the first line altogether. Mine was a sin of commission, his of omission; I leave it to moral theologians to say which of us will have to spend more years in purgatory.

Nor is Professor Zerner on very safe ground when he quotes my admission in this context that I deserted Wölfflin’s lectures for those of Wolfgang Koehler. Before this episode hardens into a legend let me state that this brief escapade did not make me into a psychologist. In fact what Koehler discussed at that time was not psychology but problems of greater generality; I remember in particular his searching analysis of determinism and indeterminism in the interpretation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the law of entropy or the increase of disorder. This happens to be the law which C.P. Snow believes ordinary humanists have never heard of. Be that as it may, the contrast I discovered between the intellectual rigor of Koehler’s lectures and the facile generalizations with which the great Heinrich Wölfflin regaled his elegant audience in the Auditorium Maximum of Berlin University worried me. Unhappily, despite many changes in the cast, the worry persists.

E.H. Gombrich

London, England

Henri Zerner replies:

I very much regret that Professor Gombrich feels that I have dealt only with peripheral issues in my review. I thought I had challenged some fundamental assumptions of his book: first, his conviction that the perception of pure form exists apart from a sense of meaning or prior to an attribution of meaning—a meaning that can be physiognomic, representational, or conventional; second, his belief that one can discuss decoration effectively on the basis of general principles of biology or psychology in an all-embracing way outside a specific historical framework. I questioned, in fact, the very concept of decorative art as separate from art in general throughout history.

I failed to discuss the general principles outlined at the beginning of Gombrich’s letter because they did not invite discussion; they commanded assent all too easily. The rest of the book, even read closely and sequentially, did not seem to follow from these principles with the necessity, or at least the clarity that Gombrich hopes. In my review I emphasized Gombrich’s chapters on perception because this is where he starts to build upon his general principles. (If Gombrich had only developed the idea of decoration as a mode of adapting to the environment—a point he touches upon—the book would have been more cogent and exciting, and have gained a genuine foothold in reality.) Perhaps I ought to have drawn more attention to Gombrich’s analysis of how decorative structures of graded complexity are perceived, since this may be the most brilliant and instructive part of the book.

I regret, too, that my reservations have provoked Gombrich into raising a number of small details that he himself finds tedious. He seems to have been particularly vexed by my account of his leaving Wölfflin’s lectures for Koehler’s. It was, however, his own version. My description of Koehler’s lectures as “exciting accounts of psychology” was within quotation marks and comes from page 92 of Norm and Form. Only now have we learned that the lectures dealt with the Second Law of Thermodynamics. On page 91 of the same book, Gombrich himself cites Wölfflin’s title as Italien und das deutsche Formgefühl, just as I and practically everybody else do, including Wölfflin. Gombrich’s question which of us will suffer longer in purgatory for this is therefore easily answered, since he has committed both “sins.” Here is the original title page of the book, from which it is clear that the words “Die Kunst der Renaissance” are not part of the main title:

Gombrich has confused matters by describing the layout not of the title page, but of the half title, the overleaf that precedes the title page, sometimes called “the bastard title.”

I think that Gombrich would agree that he does not seriously intend his appeal to Constable’s and Zola’s use of “experiment” in order to justify his own application of the term to abstract art. When Constable and Zola referred to their art as experiments, they wished to confer on it the prestige and authority of a science. When Gombrich applies the term to nonfigurative art, surely he means, as he himself put it, “an art form that still has to prove its potentialities,”4 in other words, a dubious venture artificially puffed by critics and theoreticians. I see from his letter that even today he optimistically thinks the whole thing may well go away.

As to the role of landscape in the genesis of abstract painting, it is hardly a “theory” or a discovery of mine. The passage from landscape to abstraction can be followed step by step in both Kandinsky and Mondrian; only the significance of this fact can be subject to discussion. I did not deny all relationship between abstract art and decoration, nor did I accuse Gombrich of explaining abstraction entirely from decoration—I only claimed that he greatly exaggerated the importance of this connection. Ringbom in no way offers an “alternate theory”; his interesting book, which never raises the question of ornamental design, investigates the impact of theosophy and other occultist sources on Kandinsky. Ringbom, of course, does not challenge the connection with landscape that anyone can observe, and one section of his book is called “Dissolution of a Landscape.” I do not know Gioseffi’s book on Mondrian and the only known copy in Paris, the one at the Institute of Art, has disappeared. Gombrich’s mystifying reference to Ringbom has not encouraged me to try further. 5

Hegel seems to have become for Gombrich what Machiavelli was for the Elizabethans, Old Nick, the very devil responsible for all evils. That Riegl’s thought was influenced by Hegel’s philosophy of history is undeniable; so was the thought of great libertarians like Michelet and notorious conservatives like Taine, neither of whom can be said to “weaken resistance to totalitarian thought.” The racial theory of Riegl is as outmoded as his psychology; I agree that it is hard for us not to find it somewhat repulsive today. But we should remember that it would be difficult to find a nineteenth-century thinker who did not entertain some notion of a racial influence on culture. Making Hegel’s philosophy of history responsible for totalitarian regimes is like claiming that Saint Thomas’s defense of orthodoxy caused the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition. I cannot take this sort of reasoning any more seriously than Gombrich’s insinuation that my low estimate (he is right about that, however) of the late works of Kokoschka implies a condemnation of political and artistic dissidence.

The terms of individualism and collectivism chosen by Gombrich to describe what he considers our main point of disagreement are politically and morally loaded. Essentially, he is saying: “I am a nice individualist, and Zerner is a wicked collectivist.” In other circumstances, he has presented the same contrast in the more dispassionate, if more abstract, terms of nominalism versus realism or essentialism. For the nominalist a term like “baroque” or “mannerism” is merely a name and has no existence except as a collection of individual objects grouped according to more or less arbitrary criteria. For the essentialist, it has real existence and can be treated as an active force.

Gombrich’s characterization of our disagreement is deeply mistaken. I am not a collectivist, not even a Hegelian, and almost as much a nominalist as he is. I believe that historians should never forget that collective entities are constructions of the mind and not natural objects.

What is at issue is the nature of period styles. Even here, in fact, there is no fundamental disagreement between Gombrich and myself. My criticisms affected only his presentation in The Sense of Order where an important chapter is devoted to this problem; reference to his other works will show how much common ground there is. In Norm and Form (page 97) he writes:

The historian will frequently find that opposing camps of critics have more in common than they admit. Rubénistes and Poussinistes, Delacroix and Ingres, Wagner and Brahms, shared so much common ground that their differences concerning certain priorities of value loomed all the more largely. Seen from a distance these differences partly disappear.

Unless Gombrich means only that distance makes everything blur, he admits that there is a sense in which a period style transcends individual choice. Brahms and Wagner, Delacroix and Ingres would not willingly have chosen to be in the same camp: yet in the larger view of things they are. In Art and Illusion Gombrich approvingly quotes Wölfflin’s principle that “not everything is possible in every period,” which clearly sets limits to individual choice. If Gombrich is prepared to stand by what he wrote, he is as much of a “collectivist” as I am.

I did not claim that Gombrich was muddled in postulating that the period character of styles emerges from the cumulative effect of individual acts of choice (a thesis, by the way, which is never clearly developed in The Sense of Order). I would claim, however, that this thesis is rarely demonstrable practically, even if we admit it hypothetically with an immense proviso of “in the final analysis.” This impracticability of deriving large-scale historical changes from individual acts and therefore of being able completely to verify our notions of them troubles Gombrich with some justification. It is why, I think, he describes himself on this matter as a sceptic with an uneasy conscience.”

The theory of schemata in Art and Illusion is perhaps the most remarkable contribution ever written toward a rigorously rational and empirical explanation of large-scale stylistic changes. The demonstration, as I pointed out, took place within a specific, limited, although large, historical situation, and the given aim of natural representation assigned to art during that long stretch of time is precisely the kind of cultural pressure that channels individual efforts. The failure to construct a similar historical frame for The Sense of Order and the attempt to embrace history with theories of psychology and biology prevent the new book from being as forceful.

Gombrich’s concept of “pure design” still worries me. Our experience of forms is so intimately associated with the rest of life that reducing art to its perceptual elements is a dangerous procedure. The aesthetic function is always inextricably entangled with social and cultural habits. The only evidence against this that Gombrich produces is the authority of James C. Faris, whose book he savaged in these pages in 1972. Faris claims that Nuba body painting “is chiefly motivated by aesthetic and decorative factors.” I find it impossible to believe that any body decoration would escape social engagement, and the evidence in favor of an absence of meaning other than aesthetic is shaky. Take another example of body decoration. Is the present use of lipstick ever “pure design”? That it has aesthetic value (for better or worse) is beyond question. If a woman were asked by an anthropologist, she might indeed reply that she uses it just for aesthetic and decorative reasons. But let a man wear lipstick, and the cultural implications come quickly to the foreground.

Gombrich will protest that he knows all that. And of course he does. He remarks about Nuba body decoration: “That these complex designs also stand in a cultural context goes without saying.” It ought to go without saying. But then what is the role of “pure design” in this “cultural context,” and how pure can it be? Gombrich will not tell us. Can we, in fact, understand any form of decorative art, even the simplest and most primitive, without considering its historical or cultural place? Does Gombrich really believe that pure design—pure play of color without expressive and cultural meaning—exists? Does he hold that there can be decoration “without ulterior purpose”? He sometimes writes as if he does; at other moments he seems to deny it. If he does believe all this, then there are real points of disagreement between us after all. Of course, one must abstract something in order to study it, but I still maintain, as in my review, that decorative art can be meaningfully detached from art in general only for a society that distinguishes between high art and ornament.

The subtitle of The Sense of Order is A study in the psychology of decorative art. Is there a psychology of decorative art in general? I doubt it. This does not, however, affect my great admiration for one of the rare historians today who take the fundamental problems of art history seriously.

  1. 1

    The Sounding Cosmos, A Study in the Spiritualism of Kandinsky and the Genesis of Abstract Painting (Abo, 1970).

  2. 2

    La falsa Prehistoria di Piet Mondriaan (Trieste, 1957).

  3. 3

    Die Wiener Schule der Kunstgeschichte, Mitteilungen des Osterreichischen Instituts für Geschichtsforschung, Ergänzungs-Band XXII, Heft 2, 1934, p. 186.

  4. 4

    Meditations on a Hobby Horse, page x.

  5. 5

    After this was written I finally got to see a copy of Gioseffi. It explicitly does not deal with Mondrian’s early abstractions but only with his Neo-Plasticist style after 1919. Gioseffi’s final crushing proof of Mondrian’s entire dependence on Japanese architectural design for his late style is the artist’s complete and deliberate silence on the subject in order to hide and keep to himself his source of inspiration—a classic example of paranoiac art history which I am delighted to have become acquainted with.

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